I confess, one thing that drives me nuts about senior living, more than anything else, is how we assume we are already doing the best we can.

By Steve Moran

I confess, one thing that drives me nuts about senior living, more than anything else, is how we assume we are already doing the best we can. We seem to think that it is impossible for there to be new or better solutions. This seems particularly true when it comes to how we interact with people.

In one sense, I get it. If there were an obvious better way to interact with people, we would be doing it . . . so that must mean we are maxing out.   

Except, what if this is not really true?  

Here are some examples followed by two stories.

Maxed Out Staffing Myths

Here are the ones related to staffing I hear over and over again:

  1. We can’t afford to pay higher wages to our frontline team members without breaking the bank.

  2. Higher-skilled, higher-paid team members won’t work any harder, any better, or any more efficiently than lower paid workers.

  3. We can’t really trust the people who work for us all that much.

  4. There are no better staffing patterns.

  5. Agency staffing is inevitable.

  6. Current leadership training done within the organization is adequate.

  7. We can never compete for staff with _______________ (you fill in the blank).

The Staffing Shortage Problem

A few weeks ago I was chatting with the CEO of a senior living organization about joining our next Culture 2100 Inner Circle Class — an initiative that helps leaders reduce agency costs and turnover while improving resident and staff satisfaction.

He was telling me that he has a million dollar plus per year agency staff problem in just a handful of communities. He felt like they were doing all they could do. It was obvious to him that if they could do better or different things, they would. Therefore, he believed they were already doing all they could do.

Except maybe not.

The Staff Shortage Myth

Just a few weeks later I was a part of “Painting a New Picture” — a one-day gathering of senior living and healthcare leaders hosted by Watermark Senior Living and Juniper Senior Living — where we spent the day thinking about what the next generation of senior living might look like.

As David Freshwater was leading us through how to think creatively about solving problems, he told the following story. The set-up was almost identical to what the first CEO I mentioned had described.

A number of years ago, Watermark had an East Coast community that was struggling to hire and keep nurses. There were several big name hospitals in the area that were paying big salaries, offering generous signing bonuses, and were considered sexier than working in senior living. The local leaders were frustrated. They had tried advertising, offering bonuses, and still had to default to agency nursing to keep the community operating.

Every time they had a conversation with top leadership, they sang the same old song, “There is a critical shortage of nurses.” All the evidence supported this . . . except that everywhere you went in the local community you could see lots of nurses — at Starbucks, the gym, grocery stores; they were everywhere.

The problem was not a shortage of nurses, but something different. It was their team’s mindset about the problem that had to change.

The Solution — Cocktail Parties

Coming from the paradigm that there is an abundance of nurses in the area, the team put their heads together to figure out how to attract them to their community. One solution was to print up a bunch of invitations to a series of cocktail parties and anytime they saw a nurse they handed them an invitation. Then when the nurses came to the cocktail parties, leadership spoke about the values and purpose of Watermark and how they as a nurse could be a part of this amazing thing they were doing at this community.

In a matter of months, they had the staff they needed and agency nurses were a thing of the past.

The Real Problem

The real problem was not a staffing shortage; but, rather, how they were approaching the nurses and how they were telling their story.  

Ultimately they had to do two things:

  1. Be willing to admit that their view of the problem was limited from a big picture perspective. They were right about needing nurses. They were wrong about there not being enough nurses.

  2. They had to abandon how they had recruited in the past and be willing to experiment to see if they could solve the problem in a new, creative way.  


Just a couple of days before writing this article, I did have another conversation with the first CEO and he reported that they were making progress on their agency costs. I don’t know exactly what they are doing, but it is clearly something different.